Cardinal O'Brien jumps the shark

Allowing same-sex marriage is equivalent to legalising slavery, claims the head of the Catholic Chur

Listening to Cardinal Keith O'Brien spluttering semi-coherently into the microphone on the Today programme this morning, I felt sorry for my Catholic friends. I felt embarrassed for them. Like the article the cardinal wrote in yesterday's Sunday Telegraph in opposition to plans to allow same-sex marriage, the interview was (to use his own word) "grotesque", almost parodic in its extravagance. The validity of any of the points he might have been trying to make was lost amidst the general hysteria of his language. As was any remaining credibility his church might be imagined to possess.

To allow the unions entered into by same-sex couples to be legally referred to as "marriage" rather than civil partnership would, thinks O'Brien, represent a violation of human rights equivalent to the legalisation of slavery. It would shame the nation. It would be "madness", "arrogant", a "great wrong", an attempt to "redefine reality" at the behest of "a small minority of activists". It would be the next step down a slippery-slope: before we knew where we were, he told John Humphrys, "further aberrations would be taking place and society would be degenerating even further than it already has into immorality".

Here's what His Eminence wrote about slavery:

Imagine for a moment that the government had decided to legalise slavery but assured us that "no one will be forced to keep a slave". Would such worthless assurances calm our fury? Would they justify dismantling a fundamental human right? Or would they simply amount to weasel words masking a great wrong?

When Humphrys pointed out that many might consider this comparison to be rather more "grotesque" than legally-recognised same-sex marriage, O'Brien was having none of it. The analogy was, he asserted, "A very, very good example as to what might happen in our own country if we go down this path."

I mean, really. What we are talking about here is replacing the phrase "civil partnership" with the word "marriage" in official documents. Calling a spade a spade. No more and no less.

O'Brien also makes much of Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by which, he claimed, "marriage is defined as a relationship between men and women". On it he founds his preposterous claim that to allow same-sex marriage would be a "violation" of human rights.

The Declaration was written in 1948, at a time when in most countries homosexuality was still illegal (as, indeed, it remains in many countries even today). Gay rights were simply not on the agenda. It was not until last year that the UN Human Rights Council finally passed a resolution condemning discrimination against gay, lesbian and transgender people. Nevertheless, the Article does not specify that marriage must be between a man and a woman. It merely asserts that "men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family".

Adding the words "or sexual orientation" to that list would neither destroy its meaning nor subvert its purpose, and if the Declaration were being drawn up today it is, I suggest, inconceivable that they would be omitted. Indeed, the use of the phrase "men and women" rather than, say, "human beings", doesn't strike me as an assertion of exclusive heterosexuality. Rather it should be read as a statement of sexual equality, reinforcing the following provision that marriage "shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses". "Spouses", note, not "husband and wife."

Over the past decade, gay marriage has been made legal in Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, South Africa and Sweden, in parts of Mexico and Brazil, and in six American states. In none of those places has the sky fallen in. The list is growing, and will continue to grow. In several countries which like Britain have adopted the "compromise" of civil partnership, the debate has moved on, inevitably, to the next step of abolishing the artificial distinction between the two.

More and more, civil partnership looks to have been a temporary solution, a way of appeasing traditionally-minded defenders of the view of marriage as an exclusively heterosexual union -- people who, let's be honest, never wanted the state to recognise gay relationships at all -- until society as a whole had become comfortable with the idea. One step at a time. The coalition's proposal is fully backed by David Cameron, who has rightly noted that the ideal of marriage, gay as well as straight, is inherently a conservative one. This seems like a natural time to embrace full equality in civil (if not religious) marriage. But it will happen sooner or later.

O'Brien's apocalyptic rhetoric, like that of the former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, speaks of a Canute-like desperation to hold back the tide. It is as though he has given up on rational debate; as though he knows that the argument has already been lost. He should reflect on the damage his intemperate language will do to the image and long-term prospects of the Catholic Church in these islands.

In a recent message, Pope Benedict XVI contemplated the benefits of silence, a "precious commodity that enables us to exercise proper discernment in the face of the surcharge of stimuli and data that we receive". Learning to communicate, he wrote, "is learning to listen and contemplate as well as speak. This is especially important for those engaged in the task of evangelization." Wise words indeed. Cardinal Keith O'Brien might do well to reflect on them.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue